A couple of years ago a pastoral colleague told me the story of her debut sermon in her new congregation. It took place on the first Sunday of Advent, and her preaching text was the second coming, end of the world passage from the gospel of Luke. Apocalyptic passages like this one typically show up on the first Sunday of Advent because at the start of a new church year the Christian imagination looks far into the future, to the consummation of all things, as well into the past, to the Nativity of the Lord.
End of the world texts are notoriously tricky to preach effectively; but from what I could gather, the sermon she preached that day was theologically solid, pastorally deft, rhetorically pleasing, and socially relevant–a good sermon. What she didn’t know, however, was that in her new church it had long been the custom to let no good deed go unpunished. Sure enough, after the service she was accosted by an angry couple, parents with pre-teen kids, who proceeded to take her to task over her message.
“You’re new here,” they said, “and you need to know that in this church we don’t believe in that nonsense about stars falling out of the sky and fire on the earth and the end of the world! And if you insist on talking that way, the children will be terrified. It’s not what pastors are supposed to do, terrify children.”
I immediately thought of many things she might have said in reply, such as “Children don’t need pastors to terrify them when they already have such terrifying parents.” Sadly, she could also have reminded them that children really don’t need predictions of future catastrophes in order to feel afraid; there are plenty of awful things to frighten them right now, some of them unfolding in the privacy of their own homes.
Over-protective parents have a right to try to control what their kids are exposed to, I guess; but preachers have a duty not to trim the Good News of Jesus Christ to satisfy them, or anyone else, for that matter. And isn’t it good news that a divine regime of justice will, in the fullness of God’s good time, finally replace our world’s unjust and death-dealing systems?
And yet the doctrine of the second coming, with its multiple dimensions of judgment, vindication, consummation, and transformation, does not seem to stir us very much. We mention it once a year, on the first Sunday of Advent. And when we do mention it, we often try to explain it away; we shrug it off as if it were a silly remnant of a credulous past.
Why do we liberal Christians shy away from an active faith in the second coming? Are we not the ones who believe that through all our social justice commitments, we are preparing for the very kingdom that the second coming will finally usher in? So why not embrace it with enthusiasm?
It could be that we’re just bored. How many times have you heard the command to stay awake, to lift up your heads, to stand on tiptoe (as St. Paul says), and watch for Christ to come and install the kingdom? Every year we dutifully get up on tiptoe and watch, but nothing ever happens. After more than 2,000 years our toes get numb, and our enthusiasm begins to wane.
Recently, my colleague told me that those same parents who excoriated her for her second coming sermon took their kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s film about global warming. I guess it’s okay to tell children that the world’s going to end as long as it’s Uncle Al who’s doing the telling, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Which makes me wonder if perhaps another reason Christ’s second coming doesn’t grab us very much is that we’re just too secular to appreciate it.
We’re not totally secular, of course. Now and then we enjoy a quick peek under the veil that hides the word of mystery from our rational eyes. We’re allowed to be a little mystical as long as we don’t wallow in it. But the second coming? That’s the province of the Rapture weirdos who drive cars with “Beam me up, Lord” bumper stickers. It’s the comfort zone of the prophecy buffs with their maps and calculators. This sort of Christian exuberance about Christ’s return seems to us grossly deficient in what one theological wit called “eschatological chastity.” It is undignified—and it just isn’t us.
There’s another way in which it just isn’t us. Think for a moment about who it is that Jesus is talking to when he says, “When you see these signs, lift up your heads, for your redemption is near”? He’s talking to people who do not require academic explanations of redemption, much less theological justifications of the doctrine. They are people who from ancient days have been run over repeatedly by invaders and occupiers, exiled, enslaved, oppressed. People who have actually needed to be redeemed, literally bought back from captors and restored to their land and to their own history. For them redemption is not an interesting, odd, abstract, or debatable idea. It is their dream, their longing, their need, their passion. It is the story of their life.
As Neal Plantinga puts it, if you are a slave in Pharaoh’s Egypt, or in antebellum Mississippi, you want your redemption. If you are an Israelite exiled in Babylon, or a Kosovar exiled in Albania, you want your redemption. If you are a woman of any caste in modern India… and your fiancee doesn’t like the size of the dowry your family is offering and he threatens to send his friends to rape you, you want redemption from wicked sexism, and you want it now, with every fiber of your being… And if you are a Christian in sub-Saharan Africa this very day, you don’t yawn or roll your eyes when somebody mentions the return of Christ. When the AIDS epidemic has devastated whole populations you don’t care if your tippy-toes are going numb—you will stand up on them for another 2,000 years, if that what it takes. You want your redemption.
Can you taste that longing? Do you want the world’s redemption? Do you want your own?
Maybe you do, because maybe you have stopped claiming that you are “fine, thank you.” Maybe by some sweet grace you have broken through the denial that, as Kate Layzer says in one of her fine sermons, keeps most of us from ever really owning up to “the great big yawning need inside us that we can’t ever fill by ourselves, not with romance or work or food or shopping or booze or drugs or sex or self-help books or new drapes or travel or computers or psychotherapy or intellectual achievement or our own determination to be good responsible people.”
Maybe some calamity has befallen you that has unlocked your crying need for God’s freedom, healing, and restorative justice in a way that makes you long to hear the news that the kingdom is now very close at hand. Maybe your toes are not tired, maybe you are still watching, because your need is so deep and your longing immense. But if you’re anything like me and most people I know, if you’re having a pretty decent year in your own local personal kingdom, it’s hard for you to really long for the advent of God’s kingdom. When life is not all that bad, Plantinga notes, redemption doesn’t sound all that good.
I know that I go through my days with a Master Card in one hand and the Golden Rule in the other, and they appear to be enough to shape and anchor a mostly adequate life. And as long as this okay life of mine is not disrupted by illness, violence, or financial disaster, I don’t usually feel a strong need to be redeemed and transformed by the in-breaking of the New Age.
Redemption is not always the most welcome news, but God knows that it is in fact the best news we can get. And so the church is very wise to give us these four weeks of Advent every year to get over ourselves, to detect and repent from the largely oblivious way we live ordinarily, to reawaken in our dry bones the ancient human thirst for the Living One, and to learn to yearn also for the day when our thirst for the justice he brings will be satisfied.
The church is wise to give us Advent time and again, so that we can start fresh, start from the beginning, and try to walk a Christian path that is, as someone once described it, more than a moral coating applied over a functional atheism. To begin again to long for redemption—and if that’s beyond us, to try to long to long for it. To begin again to hope for shalom—and if that’s beyond us, to try to hope at least for a little more hope, for ourselves and for the world.
Year after year, Advent by Advent, the practice of this sort of patient desire and profound yearning for wholeness, justice and joy will shape and mold us into the very things we desire. And it will therefore also make of us a vivid testimony to the intentions of God toward the creation. Many people (as Plantinga says movingly) who don’t know a thing about God’s loving purposes but are searching hungrily for a clue will be able to look at us and say, “Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over the world!”